The historian John Goldofin Bennett once wrote on the blackboard:
“I believe that an essential part of man’s duty upon this earth is to bear witness to the truth as it has been revealed to him.”
There can be no better job description for a photo journalist.
Another gripping report from our “Lost In Asia” reporter, Roger Beaumont…
In the early 1950s there was a brilliant advertisement for BBC Radio. It had a picture of an old Welsh miner, sitting at a bare table in a humble home. Behind him was a huge radio, all mahogany, knobs and dials. A treasured and beautiful thing. The miner was staring wistfully out of the window to a distant horizon. The caption read: “With BBC Radio you can see for miles.” And that was the point. With radio, like books, you had to create your own pictures with the words you heard or read. It’s called imagination.
In many ways imagination is becoming a lost art. Our world has now become so visual, so immediate and so insistent, there’s little room for words, let alone thinking. It’s all done for you. And everyone is a photographer now. It’s estimated that eight billion shots will be taken this year on mobile phones and digital cameras, the vast majority destined to be untroubled by fame.
Many of us associate photo journalism with combat and disaster zones. Words and pictures from the frontline and ground zero. The Vietnam War brought the fight straight into the living rooms of millions of stunned Americans for the first time. Indeed, it became known as the first Television War, and in many ways it was the live pictures and words that decided the outcome.
Having worked in the media in Bangkok for several years I have met many photo journalists. They are brave lot, slightly weird, mostly single or divorced and with a tendancy to drink. They live in the moment, and with good reason. Over 1,000 photo journalists around the world have been killed trying to report the news in the past decade, with Iraq and Russia topping the list as the deadliest countries for the profession.
Following the Sichuan earthquake in China two years ago, which killed 68,000 people, a small group of photo journalists were asked give a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok. In retrospect, this turned out to be a bad idea. As they took questions about how they had covered the disaster, raw emotions of the event began to overwhelm them. The only coherent sentence I heard was from a Brit photographer who said through his tears: “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life…” and then headed straight for the bar.
But what these fellows had achieved in Sichuan and elsewhere was to reveal to the rest of us just how millions of people, who don’t win races or make a huge fuss about their lot in life, somehow manage to cope with a situation requiring immense courage and determination, whether it be an earthquake, a tsunami, or a biblical flood. In Sichuan, the government buildings cracked but mostly held, while all the schools went down like a pack of cards. They were full of children. Parents complained in vain at the blatant corruption. They still are. But at the time there was no other option but to grieve openly or quietly, get a grip, give a hug, hang together, deal with it.
On the other hand, photo journalists have to be wary of manipulation. Today in Afghanistan, many of the so-called warlords have no interest in a solution to the eternal fighting. They want the pot to keep boiling, because that’s how they can keep control of the drug and prostitution rackets, the smuggling, the weapons trade, the shakedowns and most importantly, their status. It also means people will bring camera crews to their houses and treat them with respect, and they’ll be invited to summits and consulted by the U.N. And so the people who are just basically pimps and thugs can be treated as if they are statesmen. And they don’t want this to stop. And that, unfortunately, is a very powerful feature in human nature.
So what is the essence of photo journalism? To me, it’s an alchemy of fine shots and sharp words that reveal a human moment that requires no other explanation. It’s when the best elements come together at one point.
What also interests me are the times before the camera was invented, and what the experience would have been like if you had been there and had one. Imagine being transported back to England in 1840 and sitting in a pub with Charles Dickens. The smells would have made you wretch, the food, indescribable. The language would have sounded weird, almost alien, even to an Englishman.
And what would Dickens have made of the new Nikon D 7,000 SLR camera? With his fertile brain, I think he would have loved it and perhaps hooted “What larks, Pip!” Borrowed it. And been very reluctant to give it back. He might also have perceived it as a threat to the written word – or rather to his written words.
Or imagine being a photo journalist embedded with Wellington’s troops at the Battle of Waterloo (1814) and being part of the British cavalry unit pursuing Napoleon Bonaparte from the field and who stopped at the village of Epernay to water their horses. As the French had poisoned all the wells, they went into a local tavern and emerged minutes later with 36 buckets of champagne and gave it to their steeds. Result? Both man and beast pissed, victorious, and where the hell is Old Bony? Who cares? And Corporal, pass me that bucket….
Not all photo journalists have integrity.
The “paparazzi’’ are a breed apart. Shameless predators who justify their intrusion into the private lives of others claiming that if it wasn’t for the insatiable appetite of the public for revealing pics of reclusive stars, they would be delighted to take up wildlife photography for a living. Yeah, right. Indeed, the extraordinary emphasis we give to celebrities is frightening. You could walk across Paris Hilton’s brain without getting your feet wet. But she’s worth 50 million bucks and we are not. Why? Is she worth more, or deserves more than the volunteer aid worker in Pakistan, Sudan or the Gaza strip? No. She fills a vacuous dream for many who feel she has a meaningful life simply because she is in the spotlight. I meet people of infinitely more worth and value every day in Bhutan, and as one newspaper editor taught me, if you’re stupid enough to take a celebrity as a role model, you’re almost bound to be disappointed. There are, of course, exceptions. But you get my drift.
Angelina Jolie works hard for her charities, and would rather save a village than win an Oscar, but it often seems like her and Madonna are now in open competition in adopting third world children. These women don’t have families. They build tribes. You can just see them both converging on a Cambodian village and spotting an orphaned boy and Jolie screaming ”Hey! Sod off Madonna! I saw him first!”
I watched the moon landing 30 years ago on a black and white TV at my uncle’s house outside London. The interest in the event was both vast and expectant; entire nations were primed for triumph yet braced for disaster – a word rarely mentioned but instinctively understood. We’d seen the astronauts go through the simulations underwater. It was like swimming in space. They could float upside down, use spanners in orbit, and pee in a bag. They’d done everything there was to do, except the experience of doing it.
“Abort” was possibly the first global buzzword. It was the button you pressed when you’d pressed all the rest. But we knew that once the craft had passed a certain point, it wasn’t going to do a damn bit of good whether they pressed it or not. Back in 1969, instincts told us space was really just an adventure graveyard.
So, the biggest television audience in the history of the world watched the monster Saturn V rocket groaning under the weight of every gallon of fuel in Florida, slowly blast off like a medieval siege-engine into history and the future and I shouted at a television for the first time:
“Can’t it go any FASTER? It’s slower than Aunty Win’s car!”
Indeed it could, as in minutes it was going 18,000 miles an hour, but being an impatient teenager, I had already wandered down the street to oggle at the girls coming out of the local school.
When the capsule finally touched down on the Moon we the had to wait something like 14 hours for them to find the door handle, climb down the ladder and for someone to mumble: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” though I swear it sounded like, “That’s one small step pfff min, one jeep ft grrr fur man Friday…”
We all make mistakes. Even chaps on BBC radio. In 1937, Lieutenant Commander Tommy Woodruff, describing a Royal Naval review live on the BBC wireless service after a few glasses of wine, somehow lost sight of the entire fleet and cried: “It’s gone! There’s nothing between us and heaven! Nothing at all!”, before being whipped off air and sent home with a cold flannel pressed to his forehead.
I would have loved to seen a photo of that.